D&D is in a transitional period, and that showed quite a bit at Gen Con. No longer in one big room at the Sagamore, D&D events were spread out across different rooms in the convention center, with the booth in the exhibit hall focusing mainly on showing off the new MMO expansion, the Lolth statue, and selling branded merchandise. Organized Play such as Living Forgotten Realms and Ashes of Athas kept the torching going for D&D 4e, while other rooms were dedicated to demoing Next. Let’s start with the current offerings from D&D and move forward from there.
Season of the Drow
On Thursday, I spoke with Shelley Mazzanoble of the D&D brand team (perhaps best known for her column). The big focus right now is creating linked events about the drow in the different D&D experiences: D&D Encounters, Lair Assault, and in home games with material like Menzoberranzan. There’s also supplemental material like maps, tiles, and the “drow treachery” Fortune Cards. Not only does the focus on the drow guide the storylines, that also guides mechanical developments like encouraging infighting, intrigue, and general “being a bad guy” kind of stuff that D&D has sometimes shied away from. It’s also one of the first experiments with a meta-event in D&D, which if it proves successful and popular, will lead to other attempts at this kind of thing. Taking themed events and building different experiences and perspectives from that, especially around a major con like Gen Con with plenty of one-shot games, is a pretty interesting idea… as long as you like the theme.
Gen Con Keynote: The Future of D&D
In a swanky nearby theater, the very first Gen Con keynote was held, which was hosted by Wizards of the Coast in order to present “The Future of D&D.” Originally, it wasn’t entirely clear what this was going to present, other than something related to D&D Next. As explained by one of the first guests, former WotC CEO and current Gen Con owner Peter Adkison, Gen Con was the one that suggested having a keynote to kick off the event, and invited WotC to run the first one- meaning, it wasn’t originally WotC’s idea to replace some of their more traditional seminars with a larger event. However, between fog machines, metal music, decorations, fog machines, and monstrous stand-ups around the theater, they ran with it to turn it into a big event.
After some delays, and some seating issues, the keynote kicked off, with a bigger crowd than I was expecting, almost filling the theater to capacity. (The theater was disconnected from the Gen Con hotels, and it was pouring outside, which I thought for sure would deter most people.) Adkison introduced the event and talked about his new D&D-related project, “The First Paladin.” Then he called current WotC President Greg Leeds to the stage. Leeds talked about the legacy of D&D, going back to Gygax and Arneson, and how they are caretakers of the D&D brand but the fans are really in control of it (a consistent theme of the evening). The open playtest is a part of that, which he described as a “journey” that will take some time to get right. Leeds also discussed how they view their job as putting the most talented and creative people working on D&D.
After Leeds, Kevin Kulp came onstage to MC the evening, along with guests Mike Mearls (Senior Manager for D&D), Jon Schindehette (Art Director for D&D), and Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms.)
Rather than giving the blow by blow of the keynote (you can watch it in its entirety on WotC’s site if you are so inclined), there were three big newsworthy bits:
Digital Products Are Coming Back
There were almost no details on this, but it was officially announced that D&D’s entire back catalog will be making its way to digital formats starting next year. All editions, all settings, all products working their way there, though in some cases, it may take some time. I suspect that, along with more physical reprints and other products like the board games will dominate the D&D release schedule next year (as well as 4e DDI chugging along). This wasn’t announced officially, it’s just the impression I got from the weekend. So good news for those who want to grab older products once again, and good news for D&D Next serving as the primary focus for the R&D team, and bad news if you wanted new materials out of WotC not related to Next.
The Forgotten Realms is Going to Be a Focus with “The Sundering”
Forgotten Realms is WotC’s most popular setting, and that’s going to be the setting they focus on first. The “all star” authors of the Forgotten Realms got together to hash out the way going forward with the Realms, with ideas to change the focus of the Realms as RPG setting to be back on the characters while still telling stories for the popular characters. The Sundering is being touted as “not another Realms-shaking event” but one that settles a lot of the tumult from the Spellplague-era while setting the stage for a new age of heroes in the Realms.
Not only will the Realms get an official “setting bible” that includes a lot on how the different races and cultures look, all the different parts of the Realms are going to fit together better, between the novels, the setting, any video games, etc. The big idea pitched is that the player characters in the tabletop RPG are going to be the ones who participate in the big, epic events while the novel characters will have more personal stories. Along those lines, there will be tabletop adventures released next year (system undetermined) that DMs can report their results on in much of the way they’re reporting playtest data now. The aggregate results of those adventures will influence the Forgotten Realms setting details going forward, allowing groups (en masse) to influence “canon” events in the Forgotten Realms.
I’m not a Realms fan- oftentimes for exactly the kind of problems they’re trying to peg down- so a lot of it went past my head. I did get to clarify afterwards that this Realms-focus does NOT mean that Forgotten Realms will be the default setting for D&D Next (aka it will not be like Greyhawk was to 3e). D&D Next will likely present examples from each setting for the core book, but Forgotten Realms will be the team’s focus for the first setting material for D&D Next.
D&D Next: Not Until At Least 2014
While discussing the playtest process, Mearls mentioned that the playtesting process was at least a 2 year one. If we even count it from the first playtest packet released to the public, that’s still mid-2014. And Mearls emphasized that they’ll take as much time as they need to in order to get it right, so it could be even longer if the playtests don’t take off.
However, they did provide some numbers on participation: over 75,000 players provided feedback in the first set. They also scour blogs, forums, reddit, podcasts, etc. for feedback as well and compile reports, so they don’t just get feedback from surveys.
Also an interesting note: I’m told by reliable sources that while they don’t expect to be making as much income from D&D during those 2 years of playtesting, WotC is willing to take the hit by absorbing from other areas of the company (mainly Magic) in order to make sure they have the time they need and do it right.
Those were the big takeaways from the keynote. While I’m sure fans were looking for more concrete information, like about releases for next year, the keynote was clearly focused on the “big picture” future of D&D, and not the present or near-future of D&D.
D&D Next Demo
The morning after the keynote, I participated in a press D&D roundtable and demo game of D&D Next run by Mike Mearls. There was some confusion about the event, so materials had to be rustled up, and lead to us making our own characters. Fortunately, I have experience, and was eager to try one of the new classes released at the convention, so I rolled up a sorcerer (and rolled a natural 18 stat- something that never happens to me in my home games.)
Several of the players hadn’t tried any of the playtests before, so this was their first time. This actually turned out to be an interesting test of how easy it is to build characters and learn the game on the fly, and where the game could be improved. Mearls suggested that we just take the recommended background and specialty. That definitely sped things up, but then there were chokepoints: for example, the sample equipment listed in each class still needed to be cross referenced with the equipment chapter, which then leads to needing to learn more rules about how you get your armor class and whatnot. And if you were a spellcaster, you had a list of possible spells in your list, but the three spellcasters in the group needed to share the spells chapter in order to get details. At the same time, there were details that clicked immediately based on presentation because of prior D&D experience: doing your ability score modifiers, getting your initial HP total, rolling to hit… even new implementations like making a Dexterity save.
The adventure was a simple one, as far as these things go, where we fought hobgoblins and a drow boss who had invaded a grove with a pool that was rumored to have healing powers. There were two combats and some exploration in under an hour, and featured a really cool plan by our 1st-level party (though to be fair, it was probably only possible because we had 3 spellcasters in the party.) The game was snappy and solidly felt like D&D, and I definitely like the way some things are going, while others clearly are still in development. As before, there’s still a long road to go, but I enjoyed the game.
That’s everything D&D-related that was a part of my Gen Con. In a later post, I’ll talk about some of the other RPG news coming out of Gen Con.